Dispensers Are MIA in Virtual Dispensaries

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By Andrew Karp:
Group Editor, Lenses & Technology

This month’s VM cover story, “Virtual Dispensing: Fad or Future?” paints a vivid picture of the small but thriving online optical marketplace. This emerging sector is being driven by consumers who are seeking convenience, a vast product selection and, often, low prices.

Until now, the online market has been mostly served by “pure-play” vendors and optical labs. But last month, Essilor introduced MyOnLineOptical.com, a Web portal designed to give U.S. independent ECPs who operate brick-and-mortar locations the tools to open “virtual dispensaries.”

There are good reasons why independent ECPs are entitled to a piece of the online action. Virtual dispensaries, which are open 24/7, can free up staff time during store hours. Patients can access a vast range of eyeglasses, sunglasses and contact lenses. And because of the global nature of the Net, a virtual dispensary can attract customers who might never set foot in the ECP’s brick-and-mortar dispensary.

But the tradeoff when selling Rx eyeglasses directly to a patient is having to bypass the dispenser. Online consumers are sacrificing the skill and knowledge involved in expertly selecting and properly fitting eyeglasses that only an experienced dispenser can offer.

It’s a paradox that the state-of-the-art in e-tailing eliminates the dispenser at a time when the state-of-the-art in ophthalmic lens technology calls for dispensers to be more involved in selecting increasingly more “sophisticated” lenses and fitting eyewear. For example, some of the more cutting-edge, digitally designed and manufactured progressive lenses are designed to perform best when they are precisely measured for each patient and fit in “as worn” position.

Proponents of virtual dispensaries argue that single vision lenses don’t require specialized measurements, and many digital or free-form PALs can be dispensed using default patient measurements. They point out that some e-tailers tell customers how to measure their own PD, and others are developing more capable online measuring tools. But even Essilor, which is strongly promoting virtual dispensaries, maintains that the best way for consumers to purchase eyeglasses is still directly through an ECP at a brick-and-mortar location.

Ultimately, consumers want choices. Some will happily buy eyewear online. But others, in their quest for convenience, may end up with bad fitting, uncomfortable, under-performing eyewear. They may soon find themselves visiting their local dispenser.

akarp@jobson.com